‘I am quite content to go down to posterity as a scissors and paste man, for that seems to me as a harsh but not unjust description’. This is James Joyce speaking darkly in one of his letters and we may wonder after viewing Alejandro Cesarco’s new show if he might see himself in a similarly crepuscular light. His too is an art of juxtaposition deeply indebted to literature. This is not shiny word art à la Ed Ruscha or art about language as with, well, Art and Language, but an original form that might be perhaps clunkily termed lit art—art about literature or art as literature.
There have been many attempts to illustrate literary works before but Cesarco’s practice rejects simple explication; it is a hybrid beast. Take ‘Index (a reading)’, 2008, one of the three works on display here. This is a large C-print blow up of an index to an imaginary book, a framed short story that recalls the final part of Pale Fire say or Borges’ ludic exercises. So in Cesarco’s list we first confront instantly recognisable buzz words from standard modern art texts. Under A thus we get ‘appropriation’. Under B–bibliophilia and Baldessari—check. Big John it should be said has gone on record praising Cesarco’s puzzling work as ‘deceptively simple… stringent, but… laden with emotion’. Unsurprisingly there are many page references in this non-existent book index given over to Memory. Ticking the right hipster boxes we see Tacita Dean’s name and WG Sebald, but why is Virginia Woolf’s surname spelled Wolf and what’s Tati doing in there? Here is a clue—his is playtime. Queneau is the sole Q, a nudge and a wink then from Cesarco that this here is an autobiographical tale, an exercise in style put up on a wall. Cesarco’s work is often slyly humorous, his ‘The Ramones, an autobiography’, 2008, for example, is a list of many of Da Brudders chewy choons with the first person pronoun leading the titles; from ‘I Wanna be Sedated’ to ‘I Lost My Mind’. Which one suits your mood today?
The tone in this new show, is set by the short video work ‘Everness’, 2008, a five-part affair that is both enigmatic and oddly elegiac. The first part shows us a pretentious young man speaking in Spanish (Cesarco is Uruguayan, the title is from a Borges poem) who talks in an overly literary way to the camera about the nature of Tragedy. He seems self-obsessed, his manner recalls Stephen Dedalus at his most obscurantist in Dublin’s National Library spouting off about Hamlet, someone who has read but not really lived as yet, for all his talk of exile and cunning. There is then a short blast of a Brazilian song which sounds urging, romantic.
Following this is a dramatised section that reworks/rewords Joyce’s The Dead, 1914, with rain replacing snow falling on all the expersons, rain being more appropriately Irish perhaps if less sentimental an image.
Another musical section follows on from a nostalgic Spanish Civil War song; the video then ends with a domestic scene featuring a couple scrutinising their relationship and something unknowable is suggested, a truth about love and life learned the hard way maybe.
This is an ambiguous work by a learner rather than a teacher. Looped in this way one might conclude that Cesarco is revisiting one of Joyce’s great themes in Ulysses admirably outlined in Declan Kiberd’s excellent Ulysses and Us: The Art of Everyday Living, which is that ‘in order to find the self one must first agree to lose it’. ‘Everness’ I suspect asks the old question—must you have battle in your heart forever? Odysseus is advised by Circe not to take on the immortal gods. The cyclical lesson for the intellectual comes from the likes of old Bloom—immersion in the quotidian, go with the flow in the stream of life, give Scylla and Charybdis a wide berth and ‘cease to strive’. Or as another of Cesarco’s works using coloured pencil on paper has it ‘when I am happy I won’t have to make these anymore’.
John Quin is a writer based in London and Berlin